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Drones take flight as real estate tool, and much more

A real estate team’s Phantom 2 drone records video of a waterfront home in St. Petersburg’s Yacht Club Estates.
Published Apr. 18, 2014

TAMPA

Buzzing into the warehouse, ascending gently through the light, the $1,000 DJI Phantom 2 drone looked every bit a blend of engineering and grace, the sleek embodiment of an increasingly ubiquitous technology, less hardware than work of art.

Then it crashed.

A curse could be heard. The drone scraped down 20 feet of concrete, landing with a cringe-inducing crack. But within a minute pilot Michael Blitch had reassembled his wounded drone, which chirped back to life with a playful robotic trill.

"They're surprisingly versatile," said Blitch, 37, looking a touch sweatier than before. Inside the drone's belly-mounted camera, another happy surprise: Its footage survived the crash.

Say hello to real estate agents' newest, most unexpected selling tool. Drones are flying through mansions, strip malls and skyscrapers to give buyers' bird's-eye views and sellers the upper hand.

Photographers like Blitch have charged as little as $175 for promotional packages of drone-recorded photos and video, and some Realtors have spent thousands of dollars assembling their own buzzing rigs. Agents said the costs, often folded into listing fees, are still far cheaper than buying glitzy aerial shots taken from helicopters, planes or cranes.

"Everyone has seen a floor plan. It's boring," said Cushman & Wakefield industrial brokerage services director Julia Rettig. "With drones, there's that wow factor. You get a camera in corners you couldn't reach and … you've elevated your ability to sell something a thousandfold."

These commercial quadcopters are to military Predator drones what Super Soakers are to bazookas. But the technology is still advanced: Drones like those flown locally can speed to 25 miles per hour, beam back real-time video and ascend thousands of feet into the clouds.

And unlike, say, a cheap remote-controlled helicopter, the newest "unmanned aerial vehicles," or UAVs, are designed to be pilot-friendly. If their battery power runs low, for instance, they use their onboard GPS to dutifully return home.

A stabilized camera mount keeps the high-resolution video sharp and smooth, and a monitor on the pilot's two-joystick controller shows what the drone ''sees'' along with typical cockpit-type information.

"It's like a video game," said Joe Simoncini of the Samuels Real Estate Team as he whisked the team's $2,500 drone over a waterfront home in St. Petersburg's Yacht Club Estates. "And I love video games."

For now, drones are largely the playthings of agents serving deep-pocketed sellers and the upper crust. Rettig said her firm plans to fly a drone through one of downtown Tampa's tallest skyscrapers, the 38-story One Tampa City Center, now up for sale.

The drones have already found other uses besides real estate glamor shots and war fighting. Drones are accomplished filmmakers, pipeline inspectors and crop dusters. They have searched for missing people, surveyed construction sites and even been used for self-portraits (not "selfies," but "dronies").

Captains have flown drones over tour boats for closeups of parasailers, and over charter boats to catch fish on video before they even hit the lure. Amazon recently made headlines when it pitched a same-day shipping service powered by delivery drones.

But even as the drones' popularity has taken off, pilots still fly in a legal fog. The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates American airspace, has fought against commercial drone flight, issuing bans against what it calls a potential airborne hazard and threatening $10,000 fines.

The FAA estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial drones will fly nationwide by 2018, but it has yet to develop regulations allowing for their open use. Though a federal judge last month threw out the FAA's first-ever fine of a drone operator, a pilot filming a promotional video at the University of Virginia, the agency has filed to appeal.

Florida lawmakers last year passed the "Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act," restricting police use of drones without a warrant. But Guy S. Haggard, an aviation lawyer with Florida law firm Gray Robinson, said he expects a new generation of legal wrangling to arise from drone disputes.

"If the sheriff flies it over your back yard, is that an illegal search?" Haggard said. "What if your neighbor has one of these and flies it over your back yard. Is that an invasion of privacy? … Or a business flies over a manufacturing facility to spy on trade secrets? It's a fast-developing field, and I expect there will be lots of cases like this."

Drones have already sparked tussles over air rights and privacy. Earlier this month in Treasure Island, a beachgoer told TV news crews he called 911 on "some pervert" with a circling video drone. The pilot said the drone was no different from any tourist with a camera; no charges were filed.

Expanded drone use will also face many more fundamental dangers. Birds are known to attack drones as outsiders, dive-bombing the machines to the ground. Bees swarm to the mimicking buzz of their blades. Then, of course, there is pilot error: Even the best quadcopters still crash when flown into a wall.

The nation's drone capabilities have only begun to take off. Google said last week that it had bought Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for several years, beaming back regularly updated images of Earth and delivering Internet access to parts of the world otherwise too far away.

For now, agents are happy to explore the unmanned aircraft's more accessible uses. On a sunny afternoon in Yacht Club Estates, Simoncini guided a drone up and over a bemused cockapoo, up hundreds of feet into the blue, until the $850,000 home was barely a hazy beige dot, lost among fingers of land.

The real-time footage was crisp and stunning, but Realtor Scott Samuels wanted to see how far it could go.

"Hey, Joe," he said. "Can you trim the hedges while you're doing that?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

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